Whey protein powder is a popular and convenient way to increase protein intake, especially for people who are trying to bulk up.
But as you stop to admire those muscle gains in the mirror, you might notice something else popping up — pimples.
Could whey protein be the culprit behind your acne? And if so, what should you use instead?
Keep reading to find out!
Please note that this article contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualified purchases.
What Is Whey Protein?
Whey is a milk protein that is commonly used in protein powder supplements.
There are two main proteins found in milk: casein and whey, which make up 80% and 20% of cow’s milk protein, respectively.
During cheesemaking, enzymes are added to milk that cause the casein to clump together (forming “curds”) and separate from the liquid whey (1).
The curds are then further processed to make cheese, while the whey can be dried and used as a food additive or made into protein powder for supplements (1).
What Are the Different Types?
There are 3 main types of whey protein supplements:
1. Whey Protein Concentrate
Whey protein concentrate (WPC) is the least processed form.
It is made from liquid whey (leftover from cheesemaking), which gets filtered to remove some of the carbohydrates and fat, then spray-dried to form a powder (2).
The final product can contain anywhere from 30% to 85% protein, depending on how it’s made, along with smaller amounts of lactose (milk sugar) and fat (3, 4).
Whey protein concentrate is generally the cheapest, best-tasting, and most widely available type of whey protein on the market.
2. Whey Protein Isolate
Whey protein isolate is the form with the highest protein content (about 90-95%) (2, 3).
It goes through a more rigorous filtration process to remove most of the carbohydrates and fat, resulting in a product that is almost entirely made up of protein (2).
Because it requires more processing, it also tends to be more expensive than whey protein concentrate.
Still, many people prefer whey protein isolate for its higher protein content, smooth texture, and bland taste, which makes it more versatile.
3. Whey Protein Hydrolysate
Whey protein hydrolysate (also called hydrolyzed whey) refers to whey protein that has been broken down or “pre-digested.”
It is made by combining whey protein isolate or concentrate with enzymes that break down the proteins into free amino acids (the building blocks of protein), which are easier to digest (2).
These amino acids are more quickly absorbed and can (in theory) help you recover faster after a workout (5).
However, there currently isn’t enough research to prove that whey protein hydrolysate is actually more effective than other forms (5).
Hydrolyzed whey tends to be the most expensive form of whey protein, and some people find the flavor to be quite bitter (6).
Which Foods Contain Whey?
In addition to protein powders, whey is found in the following foods:
1. Dairy products
Anything made from milk (AKA, dairy products) will include at least a small amount of whey protein. The question is, how much?
Milk, yogurt, and soft cheese (ricotta, cottage cheese, etc.) tend to have the most.
Greek yogurt tends to have less whey than regular yogurt, because a large portion of the whey is strained out during processing (7).
Hard cheeses, on the other hand, have been pressed to remove the whey and therefore contain only trace amounts.
Regardless of the whey content, many people find that dairy products make their acne worse, so I often recommend trying a dairy-free diet to see if it helps (8).
2. Processed foods
Whey protein is often added as a flavor enhancer or to improve the color and texture of various foods (3).
It can show up in some unexpected foods, including the following (3, 9):
- Baked goods
- Deli meats
- Hot dogs
- Ice cream
- Protein bars
- Salad dressings
The best way to find out if whey has been added to a food is to check the ingredient label.
Benefits of Whey Protein
The benefits of whey protein supplements include:
1. Helps build muscle mass
Most people use whey protein to bulk up, or increase their muscle mass.
It contains essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein) and is especially high in leucine, an amino acid that regulates muscle growth (2).
Studies show that whey protein can significantly increase muscle mass and improve muscle function when combined with resistance training (10, 11, 12).
However, simply adding protein to your diet without exercising regularly is unlikely to make a noticeable difference.
Protein supplements aren’t necessary, but they can be convenient for people with very high protein needs who might struggle to get enough from food.
2. Balances blood sugar
Whey protein may help balance blood sugar in certain people (13, 14).
A recent meta-analysis of 22 trials found that whey protein reduced hemoglobin A1c (a marker of blood sugar control) in people with metabolic syndrome, a disorder that increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes (13).
It works by slowing down the emptying of the stomach after meals, which prevents carbohydrates from being absorbed too quickly and causing a spike in blood sugar (14, 15, 16).
Whey also contains amino acids that stimulate beta cells in the pancreas to secrete more insulin, a hormone that helps regulate the level of glucose (sugar) in the blood (14).
Although results are promising, more research is needed before whey protein can be recommended for treating conditions like diabetes.
3. May improve heart health
There’s also some evidence that whey protein can reduce risk factors for heart disease.
In one study, participants who received 56 grams of whey protein each day had significantly lower blood pressure after 8 weeks (17).
Other research shows that whey protein supplementation reduces blood levels of triglycerides, a type of fat that increases the risk of heart disease (18).
More research is needed to know why this occurs, but it may be related to weight loss in some studies (19)
Does Whey Protein Cause Acne?
There isn’t a ton of research, but so far the evidence suggests that whey protein can cause acne in some people.
Several case studies have reported the development of acne in males who use whey protein supplements to build muscle.
In one case, 5 teenage boys developed moderate or severe cystic acne within 2-4 weeks of beginning protein supplements for football training and weight gain (20).
Another report of 5 healthy adult men noted similar findings when whey protein supplements were used for bodybuilding, even in those who had no previous history of acne (21).
Interestingly, some of these individuals developed acne only on their backs (AKA “bacne”), while others experienced both back and facial acne (20, 22).
In most of these patients, the acne cleared up completely within 2-3 months of stopping the protein supplements (20, 21).
The most convincing evidence comes from a 2013 study, which followed 30 young adult gym-goers (males and females) who planned to use protein supplements (23).
Prior to starting protein supplements, researchers noted that 57% of participants had only mild or moderate acne, while 43% had no acne at all.
Two months after starting whey protein, ALL of the participants had developed acne, and some (about 30%) had progressed to severe acne.
How Does Whey Cause Acne?
There are a couple of ways that whey protein might contribute to acne:
1. Increases IGF-1
People with acne (especially women) tend to have higher levels of IGF-1, a hormone similar to insulin that promotes cell growth in the body (24, 25).
IGF-1 is necessary for normal growth and development, but having too much can cause acne because it increases inflammation and oil production in the skin (25, 26).
Consuming milk and products made from milk (like whey protein) is linked with increased IGF-1 levels (27, 28).
We also know that people who consume milk (but not yogurt or cheese) on a regular basis are more likely to have acne (8, 29, 30).
Just one serving of protein powder provides around 25 grams of whey protein, which is the amount found in approximately 16 cups of milk (21).
2. Alters hormone levels
Increased IGF-1 levels caused by whey protein can also have some other effects.
IGF-1 increases the activity of an enzyme called 5-alpha reductase, which converts the hormone testosterone to a stronger form known as dihydrotestosterone (DHT) (31).
DHT increases the production of oil and inflammatory cytokines in the skin — this leads to inflammation and can cause acne (32).
More research is needed, but this process is thought to be partially responsible for whey protein’s effect on acne.
Should People with Acne Avoid Whey Protein?
Most people with acne will need to avoid whey protein.
You can feel fairly confident that whey protein is causing your acne if you notice new pimples within a month or two of starting to use the supplement.
On the other hand, if you’ve been dealing with acne for months or even years, how do you know if whey protein could be a contributing factor?
The only way to know for sure is to eliminate it from your diet for a couple of months and wait to see if your acne improves.
But before you ditch whey protein altogether, consider that other ingredients — mainly sugar and milk — commonly added to protein shakes might also contribute to acne.
Simply swapping cow’s milk for non-dairy milk, such as almond milk, and choosing an unsweetened protein powder might be the solution.
Just don’t forget that acne is influenced by MANY different factors, both diet- and lifestyle-related.
For people who are acne-prone, removing a single food from your diet is unlikely to result in clear skin.
Whey Protein Alternatives
Fortunately, giving up whey protein doesn’t mean that you have to miss out on the convenience of protein powder.
Below I’ll discuss some of the most popular alternatives to whey protein and let you know which ones I think are best for people with acne.
1. Casein Protein (Poor Choice)
Casein is the other type of protein found in milk.
It is digested and absorbed more slowly than whey, causing the level of amino acids (the building blocks of protein) in your blood to stay elevated for a longer period of time (33, 34).
Studies on the effectiveness of casein protein powders are mixed — some suggest it is better than (or equal to) whey for muscle building, while others don’t (35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40).
However, it’s still derived from milk (a known acne trigger) and may also increase IGF-1, so I wouldn’t recommend it for people with acne (41).
2. Egg White Protein (Good Choice)
Egg white protein is the best animal-based protein powder option for people with acne.
Similar to whey protein, it is high in branched-chain amino acids, especially leucine, which is needed to produce muscle (42, 43)
Although eggs can be an acne trigger for some people, there isn’t enough evidence to suggest that everyone with acne needs to avoid them.
There isn’t much research on how egg white protein compares to other protein powders when it comes to muscle building, but it’s still a high-quality protein choice.
3. Pea Protein (Good Choice)
Pea protein (made from yellow split peas) is a popular choice among people who prefer plant-based options.
Numerous studies show that it can be just as effective as whey protein for building muscle mass when combined with exercise (44, 45, 46, 47).
It is also one of the few plant-based proteins that qualifies as a complete protein, meaning that it provides all of the essential amino acids (48).
Pea protein rarely triggers allergies, so it’s a good option for people who might be concerned about food allergies.
4. Hemp Protein (Good Choice)
Hemp protein is made from seeds of the hemp plant, which is related to marijuana but contains only trace amounts of THC.
Although it is a complete protein, it tends to be lower in lysine and has less protein per serving than other powders (49).
Unlike most protein powders, hemp protein is very high in fiber, with up to 11 grams per 1/4 cup serving, making (50).
It also provides some omega-3 fatty acids, a type of healthy fat that reduces inflammation and may protect against acne (51, 52, 53).
5. Soy Protein (Good Choice)
Soy protein is another plant-based complete protein (54).
Research suggests it may not be as effective as whey protein for building muscle, but it’s still a great choice for people who prefer plant-based options (55, 56).
Some people claim that soy promotes acne because it contains isoflavones, a group of chemicals with a similar structure to the hormone estrogen (57).
However, there currently isn’t any scientific evidence that soy negatively affects hormone levels (58).
On top of that many soy protein powders are made with soybeans that have been washed in alcohol, which removes most of the isoflavone content (59).
Still, soy is a common allergen, so if you suspect that it may be causing breakouts or other symptoms, it’s a good idea to get tested for food allergies (60).
6. Brown Rice Protein (Good Choice)
Brown rice protein tends to have a lower protein content per serving than other protein powders and is too low in lysine to be considered a complete protein.
However, as long as you’re getting a variety of protein sources in your diet (and not relying on protein powder alone), this isn’t a deal-breaker.
More research is needed, but one study found that rice protein increased muscle mass as much as whey protein (61).
Brown rice protein is an especially good choice for people with allergies or sensitivities to gluten or soy.
What Is the Best Protein Powder for Acne?
For people with acne, there are a few things to consider when shopping for a protein powder.
First of all, you’ll want to look for products with no added sugars.
Diets high in refined carbohydrates (including added sugars) have been linked with acne, and some studies show an improvement in acne when sugar intake is reduced (62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 67).
You should also check the ingredient label to make sure there is no added vitamin B6 or B12, which may trigger acne in some people when consumed in large doses (68, 69, 70).
Here are some of my favorite acne-friendly protein powders:
Please note that the following links are affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
1. Orgain Organic Protein Powder
This certified organic protein powder by Orgain is made from a blend of plant-based ingredients, including pea protein, brown rice protein, and chia seed.
Two scoops (36 grams) provides 140 calories, 21 grams of protein, 7 grams of carbohydrates, 1 gram of fiber, and 4.5 grams of fat.
I’ve linked the unsweetened version, which contains no added sugars or sweeteners, but several artificially sweetened flavors (chocolate, vanilla, etc.) are available as well.
2. Manitoba Harvest Hemp Protein Powder
My favorite choice for hemp protein is Manitoba Harvest’s Hemp Yeah Balanced Protein + Fiber (unsweetened).
Four tablespoons (30 grams) provides 110 calories, 15 grams of protein, 8 grams of fiber, and 3 grams of fat.
Some people find this product to have too much of an earthy, grassy flavor, but it blends well in smoothies and isn’t chalky like other powders.
3. Judee’s Dried Egg White Protein Powder
This egg white protein powder by Judee’s is a simple, versatile protein powder that can be added to smoothies and other snacks.
Six tablespoons (30 grams) provides 120 calories and 24 grams of protein, with no fat or carbohydrates.
It is packaged in a dedicated gluten-free and nut-free facility, so it’s a great choice for people with gluten sensitivity or nut allergies.
4. Naked Pea Protein
This product is made from only one ingredient — yellow split peas — and is certified vegan and gluten-free.
Two scoops (30 grams) provides 120 calories, 27 grams of protein, 2 grams of carbohydrates, and 0.5 grams of fat.
It has a smooth texture that blends well in smoothies, and its neutral flavor makes it easy to add to just about anything.
5. Garden of Life Sport Organic Plant-Based Protein
This protein powder by Garden of Life is made with pea protein, navy beans, lentils, garbanzo beans (chickpeas), and cranberry seed protein.
Two scoops (42 grams) provides 160 calories, 30 grams of protein, 7 grams of carbohydrates, 2 grams of fiber, and 3 grams of fat.
It is sweetened with Stevia and is available in vanilla or chocolate flavors.
Safety & Side Effects
Overall, protein powders are relatively safe.
However, there is some concern that plant-based protein powders are high in heavy metals, such as arsenic, lead, and mercury.
Plants absorb small amounts of these metals from the soil, although plants grown in contaminated soil may have higher levels.
More research is needed, but a recent study suggests that the level of heavy metals in plant-based protein powders is too low to pose any significant health risk (71).
If you’re still concerned about heavy metals or simply want to avoid taking supplements, focus on ways to include more high-protein foods in your diet.
All of the following snack combinations provide about 15 grams of protein:
- Steamed edamame pods (1 cup) (72)
- Beef jerky (1 ounce) + 1 peanut butter protein ball (73)
- Roasted chickpeas (1/2 cup) + 1 hard-boiled egg (74, 75)
- Tuna salad (1/2 cup)+ whole grain crackers (76, 77)
- Half peanut butter sandwich (2 tablespoons peanut butter + 1 slice whole grain bread) (78, 79)
- Hard-boiled eggs (2) + flax seed crackers (75, 80)
- Whole grain bread (1 slice) + cream cheese (2 tablespoons) + smoked salmon (1 ounce) (78, 81, 82)
- Bean chips (1 serving) + shredded chicken (1/3 cup) + salsa (83, 84, 85)
- Cheese (1 ounce) + almonds (1/4 cup) (86, 87)
- Plain Greek yogurt (3/4 cup) + raspberries (1/2 cup) (88, 89)
People with acne may need to avoid some of the foods listed above, such as yogurt and cheese, but it depends on the individual.
Whey is a milk protein found in dairy products and protein supplements.
Supplements containing whey protein are mainly used to build muscle mass but may also help with blood sugar control and reduce heart disease risk.
Some research suggests that whey protein can cause acne in certain people by increasing IGF-1 and altering hormone levels, resulting in increased oil production in the skin.
If you have acne, try eliminating whey protein from their diet for a few months to see their skin improves.
You can use another acne-friendly protein powder such as egg white protein, pea protein, hemp protein, soy protein, and brown rice protein.
Although protein powders are relatively safe, it’s best to avoid consuming more than one serving per day, unless you’ve been advised to by your doctor or dietitian.
It’s also possible to get enough protein from a variety of foods such as meat, beans, whole grains, and nuts.